Mundy Reimer

Book Review - The Quantum Thief

19 March 2020

Updated: 2020-03-21
Topics: Mathematics, Computer Science, Linguistics, Philosophy, Cognitive Science
Confidence: N/A

Cross-posted from my Goodreads reviews found here.

I’ve honestly put off reading this book for around 6 years because I thought it would be full of sci-fi nonsense, with technical terms thrown in haphazardly with no actual meaning that it might as well be akin to magic. Fortunately, I was finally in a what-the-heck mood and I can say that I was more than glad to have given this book a chance and be proven wrong…although I do think it also helped to find out that the author Hannu Rajaniemi (who has a cool badass-sounding name by the way) lives near me and that he’s formally trained with a PhD in Mathematical Physics!

Anyways, one of the main reasons why I and many others read sci-fi books is because they often offer mind-bending thought experiments of what could be, allowing us readers to compare and contrast that hypothetical reality to what we have now. As Asimov said, “Science fiction is important because it fights the natural notion that there’s something permanent about the things the way they are right now”. What parts of our humanity might change as opposed to what parts compose our non-changing core essence?

The Quantum Thief is chock full of those concepts that challenge what we think is normal and permanent. And Rajaniemi does not sprinkle in these concepts lightly! He firehoses you with them. Take the Dilemma Prison for example, where your mind is trapped in a simulation playing Game Theory against multiple infinite copies of yourself over and over, and where the prison itself ravenously desires to expand and tile the universe in perfect game-theoretic harmony.

Or the rampant Gogol Piracy in which people who possess unique and specialized minds (ex - chocolatiers) are so highly valued that they are susceptible to thieves stealing their mind, digitally uploading it, stripping it down to its bare essentials to perform its unique function, and making and illegally distributing copies of it to be used in various tools and machinery. These gogols are able to provide the extra computational power of a miniature (and sadly often sentient!) mind that you can throw them around willy-nilly for whatever you want help with, like in cracking cryptographic locks or embedding into a bullet to give it homing capacities.

Or take the concept of Gevulot, where every memory, experience, or thought you have is associated cryptography-style with public and private keys such that there exists layers of public-facing exomemory embedded in the surrounding molecular architecture like some memory palace taken literally. This technology then allows you to share co-memories with other people with an automatic and unique contract limiting how long and how high-definition/fuzzy they can remember that co-memory. This results in a Victorian-esque culture of privacy with extreme manners and decorum associated with every little act of you sharing something about yourself with others. It’s also interesting to notice the nuanced cultural shifts caused by communicating via co-remembering that memory as if it was your own, rather than the harsher method we are familiar with of externally communicating something from your perspective to my perspective as found in our primitive methods of talk and text.

And that’s not to mention the myriad of other more mundane sci-fi concepts found in this book such as terraforming planets, an immortal culture where uploading minds into body sleeves is the norm and currency is measures in units of time spent in a human body vs enslaved in a machine, optogenetic viruses that hack into your brain via patterns of lights, gangs of copy-clans composed of multiple copies of the same individual in conflict with other copy-clans (and sometimes in conflict with themselves!), etc.

All of this is tied up into a heist-themed thriller centering around this thief who is trying to steal back parts of his former personality that for some reason his former more complete self has split apart and hidden away from himself(s). A character written very much in the vein of a (modern-day) Sherlock Holmes / House / trickster-god hybrid in personality, wit, and charm (which I admit, some readers might find his cheekiness annoyingly tiresome, but I find rather endearing).

There’s another point I should also mention. Like most sci-fi books, this may sound like it’s full of neat philosophical concepts, and it definitely is…but it’s just that. It’s mainly a traditional adventure story packed with interesting cerebral concepts, rather than an emotionally-resonating piece of philosophy regarding some aspect of the human condition, like one of Ted Chiang’s short stories for example. If you’re looking for the soul-enriching experience often associated with the latter, I’m sorry to say you’ll be disappointed. But if you are looking for a nice fun adventure that happens to be packed with fascinating insight-porn that you can extrapolate and mull over the implications of on your own time, then by all means this book offers a lot of material to world-build with.

And lastly, I think this needs mentioning, especially to the newer sci-fi readers who aren’t familiar with the sub-genres that exist in this field. This novel is firmly entrenched in the realm of Hard Sci-Fi (almost like Blindsight by Peter Watts), where it throws you off the deep end of technical jargon that you either have the background to understand and appreciate how creatively it is used, or you lack this background and have to either constantly look up stuff or just glaze over as another form of magic. I find it fortunate that I possess the former, but for those that don’t, I’d highly encourage you to embrace the suspension of belief and not jump to the conclusion that this writer is just trying to pull the wool over you. Besides looking up stuff, some other reviewers mention giving it a second read which might help.

In summary, this was a fascinating book and a rather fun story :) The reveals at the end are quite savory and Rajaniemi does a fine job of supplying you with awesome world-building tidbits to think about. Plus, The-Engineer-of-Souls is EXACTLY the job and Being that I’ve always dreamed of becoming and I absolutely love how that character was introduced ❤️